OPINION: Reflecting on RBH 15

Edmund S. Tayao

Posted at Dec 13 2018 11:13 PM | Updated as of Dec 14 2018 12:12 AM

Perhaps we gave too much weight to “benefit of the doubt”, or that we were really assuming that the better judgment of the members of the House of Representatives will prevail and in the end, the country as a whole will reap the benefits of a new system, a new political dynamics in place. 

But no, that wasn’t how it eventually played out. The House, with a remarkable vote of two-thirds majority, adopted its own draft constitution--Resolution of Both Houses or RBH No. 15; and seeing it immediately feels like seeing and hearing them roar “NO!”, a big no with an exclamation point to needed political reforms advocated by many for so many years. Reforms introduced in a package and a system in the Consultative Committee (ConCom) Bayanihan draft.

I only say draft constitution to refer to the House version because it’s a draft and most likely wouldn’t make it in the Senate (in the first place, even a good, i.e. a reform-oriented, objectively drafted constitution like the Bayanihan draft will not pass muster in the Senate, at least not with the current membership). 

I did not say a draft “new” constitution because the House draft is anything but new; in fact, it is so old, not in age, but in its theme as it essentially sets back our politics and governance by at least 50 years. And we thought we’re getting there, that we’re about to kick traditional politics goodbye and welcome at least a more dynamic, representative and responsive system of politics and governance. Not a perfect one, but one that’s definitely better than what we have for the greater part of this Republic’s life, but we were wrong, if this House move is the only measure.

The ConCom, through a delegation, did several briefings before with the House leadership. In fact, even before the convening of the ConCom, many of us pushing for systemic reforms have been coordinating with the Senate and House leadership, initiated by then Senate President Aquilino 'Koko' Pimentel III and with House Speaker Pantaleon 'Bebot' Alvarez. 

In the several briefings with ConCom members, leading members of the House of Representatives under Speaker Alvarez, and the same under the current Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the understanding is that the ConCom draft will be adopted. The only modification requested by (quoting House members in attendance in said briefings) majority of the House members, is to do away with term limits. 

This means the implementable “anti-political dynasty” provisions will be retained but the term limits, with the only exception of the positions of President and Vice President, will be abrogated. While this understanding was not formally and officially discussed in the ConCom as we were already at the tail end of our mandate, there were of course informal discussions on what transpired in the consultations. At least, those I remember having spoken with, were amenable, with the strict proviso that the political party, electoral, anti-political dynasty, and federated-regions reform provisions are non-negotiable.

Much to our surprise and disappointment, what came out is an audacious display of self-indulgence in RBH 15, removing not only term limits but also all the fundamental systemic reform measures we have put in place. The reform provisions are fundamental; without it, the proposed federal government is bound to fail. 

Bringing down more powers and resources require a reengineering of the country’s political dynamics. There has to be a significant change in the rules of the game, shifting politics to one that is party-based and programmatic from the current that is personalistic and predominantly spoils-based. Without the concomitant reforms mentioned, the result will be worst than what we have right now, i.e. more powerful warlords at the regional level, more fragmented local governance, more centralized, unaccountable, lethargic and contemptuous central government.

In the first place, how can you even consider a Federal Constitution where the very basic feature of “shared powers” is not provided? How can it be provided if in the first place, the very mechanism for shared powers, the level of government that is supposed to be working as a partner, not a subordinate of the Federal government, is not there? How can a level of government be a partner if it is a mere creation of the other? 

Precisely the reason why in the ConCom draft, Article X on Local Governments under the 1987 Constitution is now proposed to be Article XI on Federated Regions. The same Article is completed by the next, Article XII, that is Distribution of Powers. Consider how powerful the Central government will be, particularly Congress, if the power to “create” regional governments rest on it. With this foregoing, what then is the fail-safe that is expected in a federal form of government that powers cannot be easily centralized if the powers enjoyed exclusively and shared between the levels of government are not provided? 

Note that today, even without amending the Local Government Code, social welfare that is devolved is effectively centralized by a mere enactment of a program, e.g. 4Ps. Consider a mere Department Order requiring local government units (LGUs) to secure the signature of the Secretary of Interior and Local Government before it can use its own funds to buy vehicles.

The theme of the Bayanihan ConCom draft Federal Philippine Constitution is to put in place a system of political institutions. A system to evolve strengthened real political parties, with its requisite, putting in place a truly representative electoral system and amalgamating currently fragmented local government units (LGUs) by putting up a collegial regional government. 

Abrogating term limits is acceptable as the significance of a dominant individual politician or political family is already addressed by the said system. No more husband or wife, children, mother and father or sister or brother can run for office simultaneously in other positions or to take the place of one who is incumbent. There can now only be at most 2 relatives in power, one in the local or regional and another at the national level. 

What will then be dominant is a political party or a coalition of parties at any given time. Even if a particular leader runs for office, as long as he lives, he or she will always be elected only because of his or his party’s track record or reputation. The politician then has to transform him or herself as a professional political and policy leader, a lot more than what we have now that is comparable only to a ward leader.

The party system that is proposed in the House draft is even problematic. How will limiting political parties to two be consistent with everyone’s right to association? How will two political parties represent a diverse society such as ours? How will you allow party-list groups to participate if only 2 political parties are allowed? 

Note that precisely the term that is used is “party”-list, precisely because these are also political parties albeit elected differently. Party-list groups are political parties organized “supposedly” to represent a particular sector but these are political parties nonetheless. In the first place, one cannot find any country that expressly provides that there are only 2 political parties allowed. The number of “effective” political parties is a result of the electoral system in place, hence the explanation in the foregoing that the political party system and the electoral system are configured together. The other determines the dynamic of the other.

In whole, one has to understand that the significance of a constitution is in the kind of mechanism that is put in place as a result of the carefully crafted provisions. There is no other way but to be systemic, looking at how one article and or provision relates and completes with the other. The political provisions impact--and is affected by--the economic and fiscal provisions. Each article and or provision makes sense only if taken as a part of the whole constitution. 

This consideration is crucial if we are to make sure that the good provisions are put into practice and or implemented and do not just remain as useless, unrealizable albeit nicely written provisions as it is in the current 1987 Constitution. If we cannot consider these, we might as well forget about charter change.

(Editor's note: The author was a member of the Constitutional Commission (ConCom).) 

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